Boundaries, People and Places of Central Otago by Brian Turner, Godwit, 2015. Softcover, 352 pages, $45.
The name of poet and writer Brian Turner is almost synonymous with Central Otago, like the paintings of his friend Grahame Sydney. He’s lived at Oturehua since 1999. So no surprises that this latest book by Turner is about his home territory, and includes 46 poems deeply rooted in this distinctive part of New Zealand. It is land, Turner writes, ‘that opens out, opens you up, land in which you can see yourself better.’
But the book is also something of a departure for Turner, who more often writes of his own experiences and thoughts. There’s plenty of his musing in here, but the book includes interviews with many other locals too. The best chapters, I think, are those called ‘On Blackstone Hill’ and ‘I’ve lived a wanderer’s life’. In the former, Turner takes a tour of the high country with farmer Robert Gardyne, who knows his plants. The latter chapter has a particularly interesting interview with local Evelyn Skinner, who shares her wisdom.
The book includes additional essays from locals such as Graeme Male, John Breen, Michael Harlow, Jillian Sullivan and Gerry Eckhoff. Former Act MP Eckhoff?! Could Turner and Eckhoff have much in common? Eckhoff takes a predictable swipe at tenure review, with the debatable claim that many farmers were bullied into it (it was a voluntary process). His claims of ‘low-stocking’ of the high country ignore how much tussock grasslands have been lost due to over-grazing and repeated burning. But he’s right to say that intense development of freeholded land (like what is happening in Central Otago) was an ‘unintended consequence’ of tenure review.
Other topics include what makes a community, rural sports, the landscape, wilding pines, the impact of dairy conversion, and the Central Otago Rail Trail: ‘When the trail was first mooted, especially amongst the farming community, almost to a man it was seen as a stupid idea. Now there’s almost universal support.’ At its heart, this is a meditation on how landscapes affect us, shape us as people, and how we can learn to live more sustainable lives; lives more connected to nature.
The photographs by Steve Caveley possess an understated quality, taken with the sensibility of someone who has recently come to love Central. They’re not showy or over-processed, and match the tone of the text. It’s a lovely production too, with thick, creamy-coloured paper, and a spacious layout.
I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I did Turner’s earlier books Into the Wider World and Somebodies and Nobodies. Perhaps that’s because it’s less cohesive. It’s a book of meditations, ruminations, and meandering lines of thought. Like a stream, they twist and turn – but there is a direction and purpose to them. Central Otago is probably the part of New Zealand I know least, and the book did give me a much greater sense of the place.
Turner wishes people read more, thought more about the future. He writes ‘The issues facing humankind here and everywhere else invite further discussion about what we mean today when we speak of prosperity, progress and growth; and whether we ought to be more carefully considering limits, determining what is truly sustainable and what isn’t.’
The poems are excellent, as you’d expect from someone of Turner’s calibre, in particular ‘May Moon’, ‘Progress’ ‘Evening Walk’ ‘Oturehua’ and ‘Lichens’:
‘They clothe the land, and like
intricate tapestries centuries old
adorn the rock outcrops,
battlements, cliffs and bared ground
revealing the fallacies of those
who would have us believe
there’s nothing there.’